Brian John Spencer… As copy boy on Day Three of the Easter Rising

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Liberty Hall 

By Wednesday the skies in Dublin are hot and sunny, no longer the dark and sultry conditions of the first days. Like the weather, the tempo of battle has changed as troops flood into the city. The grip of the rebels remains firm and morale high, but Wednesday marks the beginning of the end.

The events of Monday and Tuesday are minor skirmishes compared to the fully-fledged war that erupts on Wednesday, Sackville Street and other parts of the city come to resemble the Western Front.

The insurrection, from its beginning to Wednesday, had left Redmond-Howard and others in a permanent state of a “anxious expectancy”, not altogether sure of their fate. The citizens of the city knew they were “absolutely at the mercy of what appeared to be a “secret society suddenly gone mad and in possession of the reins of government”.” Anyone who was in Dublin would “never forget the experience.”

L.G. Redmond-Howard described the sea change that happened on Wednesday:

“[On Tuesday] the trouble was by no means even at its height… It was not until Wednesday morning, as we have already seen, that the city realized that an attack in full force was contemplated.”

Around 6 in the morning British reinforcements, thousands of troops from the 59th Midland division, arrive at Kingstown harbour (now Dún Laoghaire) and disembark from SS Tynwald and SS Patriotic. Mrs. Hamilton Norway described their arrival ashore:

“Lord S. tells me that 30,000 troops were landed at Kingstown this morning, and we hear they are amazed at their reception, as they had been told that they were going to quell a rebellion in Ireland, and lo! on their arrival at Kingstown the whole population turned out to cheer them, giving them food, cigarettes, chocolate, and everything the hospitable inhabitants could provide, so that the puzzled troops asked plaintively:

“Who then are we going to fight, and where is the rebellion?”

However, as the troops advanced in land, smiles were replaced with the menacing grimace of mortal enemies.

 Pearse, Director of Military Operations, and Connolly, Commandant General and “guiding brain” of the Rising

James Stephens wrote that “the beautifully sunny morning has brought hundreds of civilians to the area to view the unexpected spectacle.” He records that “the sun is shining brilliantly.” The general public of Dublin are full of life, as Stephens wrote:

“The movement in the streets possesses more of animation than it has done. The movement ends always in a knot of people, and folk go from group to group vainly seeking information.”

L.G. Redmond-Howard described the beautiful weather which contrasts with the dark and deadly thuds of gunfire and artillery:

“[Wednesday morning] was bright and warm as a midsummer day, but in the distance across the bay we could hear the sound of the naval guns thundering out shot and shell.”

Food supplies in the city are running low. But for some of the rebels there is a bounty. Garrisoned at Jacob’s, Volunteer Seosamh de Brún wrote:

“Provisioning here is perfect tons of flour, sugar, and biscuits and those girls working so hard.”

The British gunboat ‘the Helga’, an old police patrol boat belonging to the Fisheries Department, began shelling Liberty Hall at 8am from the Liffey. The military command thought it the Headquarters of the rebels. Artillery is also fired from the grounds of Trinity. Mrs Hamilton Norway wrote:

“While we were dressing a terrific bombardment with field guns began — the first we had heard — and gave me cold shivers.”

Elizabeth ‘Elsie’ Mahaffy, daughter of the Trinity Provost John Pentland Mahaffy, spent Easter of 1916 in the Provost’s house and served dinner to the generals and participated in their conversations. She wrote in her handwritten book, ‘The Irish Rebellion of 1916‘, a description of the shelling that Wednesday morning:

“[The sound] lasted one half an hour and was indeed terrible; even the solid ‘Provost’s House’ trembled and in the garden all the birds who had sung and warbled sweetly through all the previous noises, became mute, huddling together in terrified clusters.”

By the afternoon Liberty Hall lay pulverised by the artillery fire. Small boys full of intrigue and curiosity bolted in and of the Green by the Shelbourne. But as Monday and Tuesday demonstrated, the stalk of death did not discriminate, as James Stephens wrote:

“Small boys do not believe that people will really kill them, but small boys were killed.”

As it was on day one and two of the Rising, civilians are killed as they seek out food or search for friends and family. Others are killed as they sit in their homes.

As day breaks, Jacob’s biscuit factory is hosed by machine gunners. As morning advances, British troops in the Gresham Hotel and Volunteers in the GPO exchange fire across Dublin’s main boulevarde. The wide street is turning to rubble by an artillery bombardment.

At 10.30am four regiments of the Sherwood Foresters began their march into Dublin City. They are baffled by the warmth and hospitality, one recruit later recounts that he could have had any number of breakfasts.

An officer of the Sherwood Forresters captain Arthur N. Lee captured the mood among the troops on the boat that morning: 

“I made no bones about it, it was tragic. You must remember that all of their officers and men came from Nottingham and the Retford-Newark-Worksop district of the county and they all knew each other and each other’s parents and relations. They had not the slightest desire to shoot down the Irish or any other English speaking people.”

At his place of work James Stephens went on to the roof “and remained there for half an hour.” He said “the firing from the direction of Sackville Street was continuous and at times exceedingly heavy.” The historians Molyneux and Kelly describe Sackville Street at this stage as “a fully-fledged warzone.” Later venturing out, James Stephens recounted the artillery bombardment:

“I was looking on O’Connell Bridge and Sackville Street, and the house facing me was Kelly’s—a red-brick fishing tackle shop, one half of which was on the Street. This house was being bombarded.

I counted the report of six different machine guns which played on it. Rifles innumerable and from every sort of place were potting its windows, and at intervals of about half a minute the shells from a heavy gun lobbed in through its windows or thumped mightily against its walls.”

James Stephens continued his narrative account of events:

“For three hours that bombardment continued, and the walls stood in a cloud of red dust and smoke. Rifle and machine gun bullets pattered over every inch of it, and, unfailingly the heavy gun pounded its shells through the windows.

One’s heart melted at the idea that human beings were crouching inside that volcano of death, and I said to myself, “Not even a fly can be alive in that house”.”

On Tuesday evening martial law was proclaimed, posters are pasted across the city; people must stay indoors between 7pm and 5am. By Wednesday these controls apply to all of Ireland.

General Sir John Maxwell was appointed military governor with plenary powers by the Prime Minister Mr. Asquith. The military autocrat arrived on Friday at 2.30am to command the troops and restore order.

A little after noon the Sherwood Foresters, the “Robin Hoods”, who arrived at 5am that morning from duty in the south of England, are savagely ambushed by the rebels at the “Dardanelles of Dublin” – sitting ducks as the “Gorgeous Wrecks” had been on Monday.

Overlooking the narrow street that leads to the critical Mount Street Bridge and into the city centre, the rebels occupy a number of private residences. They hold 25 Northumberland Road, the Schoolhouse and at the very end of the road the imposing Clanwilliam House, a wonderfully barricaded residence which dominates the bridge and the whole of Northumberland Road. There is a distance of about 300 metres between number 25 and the Clanwilliam fort. Secure the latter and the rebels are defeated.

Of the two columns that had departed Kingstown for the centre that morning, one met with no opposition and marched around the city and to Kilmainham barracks. But the column at Northumberland Road met with deadly resistance from the houses which commanded the direct approach from Kingstown. Many of these Robin Hoods had been uniform no longer than eight weeks, many had never even fired a rifle.

Frederick Dietrichsen of Essex was in the Foresters, his ancestors were from Denmark. His wife was an Irish protestant from Blackrock. They lived in England together. He wrote in a letter to her, April 26 1916, “I think we are in for a fairly lively time.” By chance he saw his wife and children as he and his battalion marched towards the bridge, they had taken refuge in Ireland from the German Zeppelin raids of England. Tragedy struck as Frederick was one of the first of many Foresters to perish in the shadows of the salubrious real estate of Northumberland Road in Dublin’s Ballsbridge.

The normally idyllic suburban streets are turned into a theatre of war. Witnesses recalled that “the place was literally swimming with blood.” Fearghal McGarry, in ‘The Rising – Ireland Easter 1916′, wrote:

“They lay all over Northumberland Road, on the house steps, in the channels along the canal banks and in Warrington Place.”

A soldier later said:

“We thought there were probably two or three hundred but apparently they weren’t, but the fire was so good and so accurate that they misled the troops to the numbers.”

At one thirty the Sherwood Forester attempt an attack on the Schoolhouse only to be repulsed, taking yet more casualties. The trail of death contrasts with a upbeat mood among the citizenry, as James Stephens remembers:

“Meanwhile the sun was shining. It was a delightful day, and the streets outside and around the areas of fire were animated and even gay. In the streets of Dublin there were no morose faces to be seen. Almost everyone was smiling and attentive, and a democratic feeling was abroad, to which our City is very much a stranger; for while in private we are a sociable and talkative people we have no street manners or public ease whatever. Every person spoke to every other person, and men and women mixed and talked without constraint.”

L.G. Redmond-Howard, one among “a mass of civilian spectators” at Mount Street bridge, wrote:

“Along this road the troops had to pass, and they crouched down in long rows of heads—like great khaki caterpillars—in a most terribly exposed order, so that if the rebel shot failed to hit the first head it was bound to hit the second head, provided the rifle was anywhere in the vertical line. For the most part the soldiers were boys in their early twenties, utterly ignorant of the district, with orders to take the town, which was reported in the hands of a body of men whose very name was a mysterious puzzle in pronunciation, and not an enemy in sight, only a mass of civilian spectators up to within fifty yards of them and directly in front, blocking the street—the rebel enemy meanwhile inside private houses to the right and left of the narrow bridgehead, they knew not where.”

Redmond-Howard then described the shooting of the soldiers:

“I arrived on the scene a few minutes after the start of the engagement, but already one could see the poor fellows writhing in agony in the roadway, where the advanced line had been sniped by the terrible leaden bullets of the Sinn Feiners.”

At another part of the city at a quarter to two the Dublin Fusiliers, after a bloody grenade battle, flushed out the rebels and captured the Mendicity Institute after Sean Heuston surrendered. The loss of the Institute seriously weakened the rebel position at the Four Courts. The Fusiliers then lay siege to the Courts.

James Stephens wrote in his log for Day Three, asking how the public viewed the rebel captors of their city:

“Was the City for or against the Volunteers? Was it for the Volunteers, and yet against the rising?

It is considered now (writing a day or two afterwards) that Dublin was entirely against the Volunteers, but on the day of which I write no such certainty could be put forward.

The women were less guarded, or, perhaps, knew they had less to fear. Most of the female opinion I heard was not alone unfavourable but actively and viciously hostile to the rising. This was noticeable among the best dressed class of our population; the worst dressed, indeed the female dregs of Dublin life, expressed a like antagonism, and almost in similar language. The view expressed was:

“I hope every man of them will be shot.”

And:

“They ought to be all shot.”

Stephens remarked upon Trinity, that bastion of Anglicanism, that “the firing from the roofs of Trinity College became violent… [an]unending stream of lead.”

Molneux and Kelly report that “Sackville Street now resembles Western Front”. The grand boulevard echoes with the thump and crash of shells. Artillery and machine gun fire are heaped against the two end corners of Sackville Street that adjoin Batchelor’s Walk, the fishing tackle shop and jewellers.

Just after 3 o’clock the rebels make more casualties and corpses of the Foresters on Northumberland Road. Shots rang out from 25 Northumberland Road, the Parochial Hall and Clanwilliam House. “The Sherwood Foresters are being slaughtered” wrote Molyneux and Kelly.

At 5 o’clock there is a ceasefire on Northumberland Road, allowing relief and rescue for the stricken. Redmond-Howard donned the white jacket of the Red Cross to aid the wounded, and he wrote:

“In little over an hour we brought in [to Sir Patrick Dunne’s hospital]about seventy poor fellows, who lay about all along the road and canal banks, heavy packs upon their backs.”

Mollyneux and Kelly report that there are “scores of horrifically-wounded troops.” At 6 o’clock the front door of 25 Northumberland Road is blown in and troops rush inside, taking more casualties. After twenty minutes the building is in the hands of the military.

At 6.30 the Sherwood Foresters take further ground, securing the Parochial Hall. Soon after they take the Schoolhouse, but this has since been abandoned. All the while Clanwilliam House is being drenched in the fire Vickers Machine Gun now installed in the bell tower of a nearby church, St. Mary’s.

After receiving an immediate request for assistance on Monday, the Ulster Composite Battalion of 1000-strong, was immediately sent and arrived in Dublin at 2 o’clock on Tuesday. On Wednesday late afternoon the Battalion positioned around Amiens Street, and thinking it occupied, undertook a bayonet charge of Liberty Hall. By 7pm the Ulster Battalion occupied a demolished and deserted Liberty Hall. All the Labour Volunteers had marched with Connolly into the Post Office.

Just after 8 o’clock Mount Street Bridge is in army hands. This is the critical moment. Soon they surge across. This is the bridgehead and the gateway to Clanwilliam House. Enemy fire comes not only from the house, but from rebel shooters on the railway line and water towers close to Boland’s Bakery.

Volunteer Thomas Walsh was in Clanwilliam House with his brother James and others. He described the target:

“We kept on blazing away at those in the channels, and after a time, as they were killed, the next fellow moved up and passed the man killed in front of him. This gave one the impression of a giant human khaki-coloured caterpillar.”

Trained in trench warfare the Forresters were not allowed to spread out and flank the rebel held houses. On the blow of the whistle they were to make a full frontal charge. With a shout from Captain Melleville, “Now, lads, up and all together!” the Robin Hoods rushed across the bridge. Some fell, but the flow of feet was too much for a handful of snipers. Then L.G. Redmond-Howard wrote:

“The next moment the bombers were in the garden of Clanwilliam House—one poor fellow falling and blowing the top of his head off at the gate with his own grenade.”

By 8.30pm Clanwilliam House falls to the British, but not after further wounding and mortal blows of lead from the defiant rebels. This is the three-storey houses that has helped to batter and rip carnage upon two British infantry battalions, approximately 1,600 between them.

A score of rebels claimed approximately 234 British casualties from the buildings around the strategic area of Mount Street Bridge. It was chaos, “like a scene from Dante’s Inferno” wrote Molyneux and Kelly:

“When these infantrymen landed in Kingstown this morning they expected to be met with a rabble. They are anything but.”

Finally, the Dardanelles of Dublin, the key highway to the city was in British hands. Redmond-Howard continued his work as a first-aider, and described the surroundings:

“The smell of roasting flesh was still around the blazing buildings at ten o’clock, when we brought in the last of the dead—some of them mere boys of thirteen—and laid them out in dead rows like a Raemaeker cartoon.

One lad of twelve whom I carried in, I afterwards interrogated as to why he was out in such an exposed position. He wanted to give a poor Tommy a drink, and got sniped as he was preparing to get down to the water of the canal.”

That night the boy died, his body lay stiff in the hospital yard by Thursday morning. Redmond-Howard continued:

“All Thursday I spent with the Red Cross at Sir Patrick Dunne’s which was crowded with casualties, poor fellows! one raving and asking “Is the school taken?—is the school taken?”: for this point had been the strategic point in the Battle of Mount Street Bridge. It was pathetic.”

Jameson’s and the other distilleries were shot at all day, and at night Boland’s Mills and other rebel garrisons remains under constant attack. That evening was active, as James Stephens remembered:

“In the rooms, when the night fell… instead of silence that mechanical barking of the maxims and the whistle and screams of the rifles, the solemn roar of the heavier guns, and the red glare covering the sky.”

And he shared an insight into the hardened mentality of the people, a chilly indifference to death:

“In the last two years of world-war our ideas on death have undergone a change. It is not now the furtive thing that crawled into your bed and which you fought with pill-boxes and medicine bottles. It has become again a rider of the wind whom you may go coursing with through the fields and open places. All the morbidity is gone, and the sickness, and what remains to Death is now health and excitement. So Dublin laughed at the noise of its own bombardment, and made no moan about its dead—in the sunlight.”

Francis Sheehy Skeffington, who was summarily executed that Wednesday morning at Portobello Barracks by a mad British officer, had written that, “In the midst of world-wide carnage, bloodshed in our little island may seem a trivial thing.” Mrs Hamilton Norway likewise wrote:

“Life as it has been lived for the last two years in the midst of death seems to have blunted one’s desire for it, and completely changed one’s feelings towards the Hereafter.”

L.G. Redmond-Howard wrote about Dublin on Wednesday night:

“All Wednesday night the whole town was kept awake by the snipers, who now became one of the main features of the turmoil; they seemed to be everywhere, but it was almost impossible to locate them.”

That night from the roof of the GPO the rebels could see the red glow of a great blaze near Boland’s Mills – it was the inferno at Clanwilliam House.

Wednesday was also the day of the “Cork comedy”. There the Lord Mayor and the Bishop Cork were able to obtain an interview with the leaders, and from this a temporary sort of truce was arranged, and in the end the whole operation was defused. Redmond-Howard latter decried the failure to attempt dialogue and diplomacy with the rebels in Dublin.

The destruction of the Robin Hoods at Mount Street Bridge demonstrated the ability of the rebels and their leadership’s capacity for tactical brilliance. Added to this, the rebel defense of the outposts was ferocious, their tenacity was unyielding. When you consider this altogether you can begin to understand why a score of men were able to decimate two battalions of British troops.

This was not simply some “grubby rebellion”.

However the rebels, no matter their resolve and implacable determination simply could not handle the numerical advantage of the British forces.

As the rebellion ended its third day the British began its grip on the city. Two of the strongpoints were surrendered or defeated. They were now throwing a cordon of troops around the rebel. Over the next three days this cordon would tighten ever-more, until the rebels would be hemmed in and forced to surrender.

 

Read a blow by blow account of Easter Tuesday in Dublin with first-hand sightings and recordings, in full here. Read the account of Easter Monday here. Read the account of Easter Sunday here.

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Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.

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